Why Men Avoid Fantasy Books By Women: Personal Thoughts and Theories

The spark for this essay came from a Jacqueline Carey essay on women in fiction, but it’s something that has been building subconsciously for a while. Probably as long as I’ve known most men don’t read that many books by women.

That this is commonly held wisdom is incontrovertible. That it seems to be true in both the fantasy field and further beyond is backed up by a great deal of data and anecdote and seems next door to it. This can attract a good deal of heat, particularly when men feel accused of being sexist due to their reading habits, yet I do not see an objective reason to question it.

I do question theories every now and again when I see them, which isn’t common. It is not a popular subject of discussion in my reasonably large and varied SFF circles. Carey looked at it as a prejudice against kissing books, as immortalised in The Princess Bride movie. Now Carey has been around the genre long enough that she didn’t pluck that out of thin air, and neither did William Goldman, and I’ve had plenty of discussions with other male genre fans that touch on it. Yet somehow it doesn’t feel right. I say somehow, as if any single explanation to a trend of this size has ever felt right to me. I suspect, I believe, there are multiple reasons. But before I get into them, I’d like to talk about where I am coming from.

~~~

I think the first thing to note is that I am neither a reader who struggles to find female orientated fiction I like, or a reader who reads men and women equally. I am on 11 fantasy books by women (or femme presenting NB – for the purpose of this essay femme presenting NB is counted as being in the same bucket as they face the same challenges), 33 by men, and 1 co-authored by one of each for the year; my top 36 features 9 books/series written solely by women and 2 partly by women. I am neither some fascinated observer of a behaviour I do not partake in, nor am I someone who is allergic to fantasy written by women or against celebrating it.

The second thing to note is that out of the three most important people I knew in terms of getting me into fantasy as a child, two were women – my mother and a babysitter. The third was my best friend of the time, who introduced me to the joys of Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy.

I don’t know how many of you visited a Games Workshop in the 90s. I probably spent over a week of my life in the one in Bromley, and far more on forums dedicated to their products. I think I recall seeing maybe one woman in the Bromley GW who wasn’t there due to genetic obligation, and perhaps four female posters on my main forum. Before you ask, it was very large.

The key takeaway to that, I think, is that I was used to both the idea that there was nothing unusual about women and fantasy, and the idea of fantasy spaces more or less devoid of women. I don’t know how typical I was, but I can’t have been the only one. I mean, goodness, most of the boys and men in those spaces with me were about 50% of the way there, right? It was only when I encountered online roleplaying that I found fantasy loving communities with near-equal representation of both genders, but even then it was a rarity for me until the last couple years or so.

~~~

Two interlinked theories immediately suggest themselves:

  1. Because many men were often rarely around women as part of their formative fantasy experiences, on some level it’s not really something they expect women to be part of and as a result, they look to stories about men and by men when thinking about fantasy, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously.
  2. Because many men will or would get their fantasy recommendations from predominantly male social groups, the above oft-slight bias is reinforced many times over.

Theory Two seems a fairly obvious statement of something that will happen, with some speculation as to the results when it does happen. Theory One should probably go through better psychologists than me, but it seems to make sense. You did it around X, so it’s an X thing.

Why groups formed that way is not particularly relevant to either theory, simply that they did, but I think it is worth talking about in a moment. But let’s take a little detour to sexism land first.

~~~

There are many types of sexism, from the virulent self-professed haters to the cold impersonal letdown of systems that weren’t designed to let women thrive, but a particularly pernicious type is that of a person who professes equality, probably believes it on some level, but who nevertheless automatically acts a great deal more dismissively and disrespectfully to women than towards men.

Their behaviour to both genders is usually in the confines of reasonable, just about, just at the most negative end of reasonable towards women and more positive towards men. Perhaps it’s only particular types of women or a type of behaviour more encouraged in women (think of Dr Cox’s aggressiveness with Elliot compared to his respect for Carla, for those who know Scrubs), which will make it seem even more reasonable to many. Without observing the pattern, knowing the pattern, it’s just reasonable behaviour, and some (not just men, although the majority) will emulate it and its victims will struggle to explain, to others and sometimes to themselves, that this isn’t reasonable.

I don’t know how many men are like that. Ask me to name men like that in my life and I’ll struggle, although I’m sure I do know a few.

But I do know that the most vehement voices tend to carry the furthest.

It only takes one eloquent voice, perhaps even unaware of what they’re doing, who reads female authors more harshly than men and then promulgates these opinions, to cause a trickle effect that causes female authors to be overlooked.

If you are in a predominantly male group, both the chances of being around it, and the changes of not noticing it because you rarely observe the voice frequently interacting with women, are a lot higher.

~~~

Such a voice can also have an effect when a group is being formed, either social or professional, as to who is admitted. This too is incontrovertible. Think of the influence John Campbell had in pushing hard sci-fi and similar fantasy.

I don’t think that slants to one gender or t’other in terms of genre are driven by immediate sexism. Clearly a great deal of it is just simply our cultural environment, driven day to day by people just doing what they like. Yes, the environment has its source in all sorts of prejudices, but we stand a good deal downstream of that in a lot of ways. It is however a reinforcing factor.

It needs something to reinforce though and here we get to gender interest slants.

I would love to see a thorough survey of gender reading habits by sub-genre, if not sub-sub-genre. Do I believe the research that men read more non-fiction books by men than by women? Yup. Do I think that looks different when you take out military history and sport, two incredibly male-slanted areas? Yes. Probably not even, but getting closer.

Let’s tale this theory to fantasy. Do men reading fantasy of manners read more men than women in that genre? They’re putting some work in, first authors to spring to mind were all women. Do men reading sword & sorcery read more men than women when doing so? I’d expect so because, with all due respect to CL Moore and Andre Norton, the publication lists heavily favour men. When you pare away the most slanted genres, what’s left in the middle – and what genres are the most slanted?

Once upon a time, I saw a stat from Tor reporting that 2/3rds of its epic fantasy submissions were from men. I don’t know if that’s still true, I don’t know if that’s universal, I don’t know whether that carries over into publishing figures… but it’s very easy to see how a predominantly Epic Fantasy reader will read more men than women, isn’t it? Point in case – I am a predominantly Epic Fantasy reader. My top 36 is predominantly Epic Fantasy. And my proportions are a little shy of 2/3rds men to 1/3rd women.

And, of course, not all Epic Fantasy contains the same ingredients.

~~~

Here we get to Jacqueline Carey’s Kissing Book theory. Do men not like Kissing Books? The stats on men reading romance indicate yes, but let’s keep digging, digging like a demented mole. After all, William Goldman is a man, and The Princess Bride is very much loved.

The most memorable complaint I read by a man regarding romance in fantasy is that he was about half through a book where the heroine was saving the day, and then she met a guy and suddenly became this very dramatic and unsure character who needed the day saving.

Now that can’t be the only complaint men have about romance. Not by a long shot. I suspect you could build a bridge from Earth to Mars out of them.

But points to the inherent difference in how many men and many women view love stories in books. Westley and Buttercup have a complicated courtship told in short form, then a sustaining love that makes both stronger as they face the book’s obstacles. That works great for at least some men. But the tumultuous will they won’t they, the melodrama created by making people’s feelings for each a main obstacle, works for a lot less. Why? Why would be a whole different article but it seems very true.

And that latter form of love story is the stereotype formed of Romance among men, and Kissing Books.

Which is I guess is the long way of saying many men do indeed not like Kissing Books, but I don’t think it’s as simple as “eww kissing”.

~~~

The biggest reason I think the average man swerves Romance and Kissing Books is the perception that they are mostly about men, and female fantasies of men, but not for men. That is to say they contain a great number of idealised men, stereotypically good and bad men, but not a whole number of realistic men leading realistic lives. For us, or so the perception runs, reading these books would be like an immigrant going into the restaurant serving the adapted cuisine based on their home country with tacky decorations celebrating well-known cultural elements but in a out of place way, while the real deal is right next door.

Which frankly seems fine and healthy. It’s fine women can write about men how they want and that men can then choose to avoid reading them. It mostly works the same the other way too, in that men can write about women how they want and women can choose to ignore them, although there’s a great deal of “well actually” to be added to that statement.

Of course, romantic interests aren’t the only way one gender might write about the other without particularly caring whether the other likes it. There are no shortage of unapologetically feminist, smash the patriarchy books in fantasy. It’s easy to see why people write them and easy to see why men mightn’t care to read them. I don’t think that’s the stereotype men have of women’s fiction and why they avoid female authors, but I could easily be wrong and it creates a further layer of books written by women that will attract low numbers of male readership.

But once you remove all those books, I bet there’s plenty of female authors writing fantasy that still don’t get many male readers compared to female readers.

~~~

As a quick aside, let’s talk about how we view authors, and how their biggest books shape their careers.

Easy example – I believe all of Mike Brooks, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Yoon Ha Lee have had problems getting their publishers to take on fantasy books, as their sci-fi are their big sellers and the publishers don’t want to confuse things.

Similarly, Jacqueline Carey has talked about how her The Sundering series possibly struggled a bit because the Kushiel series’ success caused it to be marketed wrong.

Do female authors who write one big book with lots of feminist anger or lots of romance find all of their books perceived similarly? It’d be shocking if they didn’t.

Does the perception of some female authors wash over to all?

Given how widespread the notion of women using non-feminine sounding names to make it big in fantasy is – arguably the two most successful female fantasy authors of the last 30 years wrote as JK Rowling and Robin Hobb after all – this sounds like a yes.

~~~

Clearly we men overall do have an unhelpful perception of what lies in a female authored book.

By and large, that doesn’t exist in quite the same way for women talking about male authored books. In quite the same way isn’t the same as saying it doesn’t exist, and here we get to the “well actuallys” of “men can write about women how they want and women can choose to ignore them”.

The first is that for a long time, and in certain genres/classics lists of more certain genres, the field is/was so male dominated that women couldn’t really choose to ignore them if they wanted to read there. The upshot of this is that for female readers in fantasy, certainly those from older generations and perhaps still for many new readers today, their perceptions are more shaped by experience than what they’ve heard. I also reckon many women have formed negative perceptions of male-authored works in some respects as part of doing so, they are used to suppressing them.

The second is that as a result of this long history of women having to read men, a lot of women have pushed back sharply on male written books that talk about women mainly in the remit of male fantasies of women. It seems like there are less such books being published in mainstream fantasy, and those that do will struggle to get awards and become laughing stock in certain parts of the fantasy community.

Men can write about women and women can choose to ignore them is true in theory, but the “well actuallys” currently constrain both in practice in certain fields. Only in certain fields. A man writing old fashioned male power fantasies from the self-pub market can probably do quite well. Meanwhile, the change in publishing philosophy and the accretion of time means a woman with little interest in the genre’s canon probably never need read a man again if they don’t want to at this point. Judging from some reviewers’ stats and professed philosophy, many have notice this, and are happy to read men at the same 25-33% ratios that a lot of men read women at.

The point of pointing this out?

One, it’s not just men with little interest in reading the other gender’s work. There’s an increasing number of women in the same boat and when that happens, the question feels a little different. Maybe the question is why, if given a suitably broad choice, do so many of us show so little interest in reading outside of our homogenous group’s creations?

Two, it is an example of reading habits that can feed conscious or subconscious decisions to read less women, or undermine attempts to promote reading women as an act of fairness. You might take the point of view that men so inclined to seize on such things are unlikely to read many women. It seems an eminently sensible point of view but most is not all and small margins can add up big over time.

~~~

The time component of this is powerful, strengthening some perceptions and eliding others. Female authors and fanbases are forgotten quicker than male, creating lopsided views of the past help cause the disassociation of women from the genre in certain ways. An example might be how a lot of Star Trek’s early popularity was among housewives, or Leigh Brackett’s work on Star Wars, or Francis Stevens’ and Katherine Kurtz’s and Emma Bull’s parts in shaping their respective sub-genres.

The people doing the forgetting aren’t always male either. You will see women do it too, out of ignorance, or perhaps a desire to create a sharper sense of injustice, or create self-publicity. The end result is the same though – making it easier for men to see fantasy as a man’s activity.

~~~

When I started this essay, I did not mean to home in entirely on the idea of fantasy, a certain type of fantasy, as a man’s domain.

However, I seem to have done so.

It is, I believe, the main answer. Most of the statements and theories about men’s taste or this or that just lead into it. It is an answer that encompasses them all.

The remarkable thing about it and its power is you don’t have to even agree with it for it to work. Point in case – myself. I don’t think fantasy is a man’s domain, although there are many sub-domains within that have been or are primarily so and I am comfortable within them, or that it should be so. But I read like it is. Why?

Because I am stood downstream of communities and biases and marketing decisions that means the majority of the fantasy fiction I read in my most elastic and formative stage was by men, and my most favoured type of fantasy has a predominantly male fanbase, which means it continues to attract a disproportionately male author base. Somehow, my reccing base is not particularly male, but that’s because it comes from being online book blogging in what currently are very female-dominated spaces. It wasn’t always that way. But it hasn’t particularly changed how I read.

And so I read a great deal many more men than women.

~~~

Does this matter? Well, it certainly does if you’re a woman writing epic fantasy. I also think it matters if you’d just like to see men and women get along with less barriers.

Do I intend to change how I read as a result? Nah, not really. Reading is a necessary pleasure to get me through the day, I’m not tinkering with that. When not reading for pleasure, I read for research. I make a point of reading female pioneers of the genre as part of that, and trying very popular female authors, but my research topics trend male due to the genre’s history.

I accept that seems to leave something of a problem.

I could absolve myself somewhat by saying that out of my top 36, out of the authors not connected to my formative years, 11 are men and 7 are women, and running a similar filter over my count for the year gives 12 men and 11 women. That doesn’t include a beta read for a friend (I usually include them, it’s slipped my mind) that’d take it to 12 all. I read a great deal more evenly when not delving into my comfort reads.

But as long as I am rereading my comfort reads and talking about them, I am contributing to a sense of fantasy being a male space, which leads to women being overlooked.

But if you come for my rereads of deeply beloved books you’d best come with an army, and a place to hide after. Very hypothetical of course, I don’t think anyone’s advocating it, I’m just expressing how much they mean to me.

I am something of a lost cause. I am the way I am. I could absolve myself again by saying with the amount I read, I’m still reading about 20 female authors a year and talking about a lot more which is no small number. I don’t think that doesn’t matter, but it’s part of a wider picture, and my wider picture includes a notable skew.

Whatever I am though, I’d like to see a future with more reading and respect.

~~~

In my mind, ingrained prejudices of all sorts are like a circle. We are shaped by people doing their honest best by us, passing down the things they love and giving us freedom to find the things we love, and so we take on the prejudices of the generations before and then do the same thing. Every generation rails against the ones before, but they usually take on more of what they were taught than they initially realise.

Some prejudices pass quickly. Others are declared beaten then found to be quite alive and well, time after time after time. It seems to me these are easily sorted by sight, even in the age of the internet. It seems unthinkable there were ever No Irish signs in London, although there were. It is saddeningly all too easy to believe there were No Black signs, even at a time when London without its black communities seems an unthinkably different and poorer place.

As such, changing how men read in the fantasy community is a difficult challenge, and one where results won’t necessarily stay in place.

~~~

Let me back up a little.

I said I don’t really believe in single causes for things this big. That remains true. A tendency towards heavily male socialisation groups linked with fantasy and everything they bring with it therefore can’t be the answer. There are lots of reasons, from outright sexism and stereotype to pure content preferences, with a lot of subconscious bias and marketing decisions and what not in between.

It’s just these heavily male groups will exacerbate all of them. It’s a force multiplier.

The obvious antidote is mixed gender groups for fantasy related activities, particularly at a formative age. I’m not even going so far as to say no all male groups. As long as gender exists and identity matters they will be needed. Just they need to be part of a mix.

Here we reach a stumbling block of sorts and that is that the YA genre, for fantasy at least, is heavily gendered. It’s gendered on the shelves and in the blurbs, and gendered in the fan space. I don’t think I’ve run across a single male who’d describe themselves as a YA fan, someone who keeps up with the genre. I know they must exist, but I am skeptical of the idea there’s enough of them that mixed groups naturally occur (and good luck forcing them).

I could be wrong, I am out of touch with how it goes down today, but my guess is that an early split into gendered tastes is still very much alive today and probably with all the obvious ramifications. I’d also add that young men are a demographic with a notoriously low interest in reading, and while I don’t think the way YA has become a very feminine space is necessarily the problem, it’s probably a barrier to a solution. It is also – with a good deal of respect for how it seems to have broadened fantasy’s reach and audience – a barrier for female authors being taken seriously when they’re pushed towards YA, which is not always given a good deal of respect.

It is something that I think would need changing. Yet I do not want to dismiss what that community has done, and would be reluctant to say it should be changed even if I have kind of effectively said it should. There are no win-win easy fixes. Not every rising tide in writing and fandom lifts all boats.

~~~

This essay has rather gotten away from me which means it’s time to wrap it up.

There is so much more I could say. I could muse about the likelihood of young adults’ big adventures away from home being with their own gender (at least socially perceived), and that possibly creating links as to what adventures look like. I could talk about how parts of this reflects many divides in readership within the genre, such as ethnicity and nationality and sexual orientation, although I am even more ignorant there than I am on this general subject. I could look harder at gender skews in other genres and what motivates them, and probably should have. I’d meant to talk about gender in terms of characters too.

Alas, space is finite, and the subject, even more alas, vast.

So let me summarise. It is real and while there’s a ton of reasons, it’s quite likely the most fertile soil for the reasons sticking is heavily male fantasy genre groups where we form ideas on the genre based on that narrow input.

Which means it is up to men to get other men to see things a little different.

Oh, women have choices about what books to write, what audiences to seek. But we know there are plenty of female authors writing for a broad audience in the genre, and it seems likely that some of that audience is ignoring them due to gender. Short of going full Tiptree, which shouldn’t have to be done, there’s nothing that the authors can do about that.

But in our groups, we can recommend female authors and offer alternate examples to statements of “oh books by women are this”. We can invite men into other groups where they’ll hear more views and at times challenge men who just never want women in the group, or can’t behave respectfully when they do join.

I didn’t set out to have a call to arms in this essay. Truth told, it’s not even really meant as one. I know how it reads but I’m not in the business of telling people how to live their lives. It’s meant as an observation.

It’s just that this observation is the best and most honest way to finish an essay on why men aren’t reading women I can think of, and if to even simply just make that observation sounds like a call to arms then, well, that’s what it sounds like.

3 thoughts on “Why Men Avoid Fantasy Books By Women: Personal Thoughts and Theories

  1. This is a very interesting essay, with lots of important points.
    However, just like you, this won’t change how/what I read, I just go with the flow.
    This year so far I’ve read/am reading 19 fantasy books, of which 11 are by women (so about 58%). Last year I read 35 fantasy books, of which 12 were by women (only 34%). Did I make an effort this year to read more women? Not really, it just happened. It goes up and down depending on releases and stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I kind of wish I’d done last year’s stats too for a bigger sample. But yes, there’ll always be ebb and flow for most of us.

      And I’m glad you enjoyed, I feel a bit frustrated with it myself but that’s because it’s such a big subject.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s